DISCUSSED: Death, Industriousness, Food, Theory, Sex, Shame, Memory, The Inner Ear, Treatment

Our father was dying. As bored as I was living my everyday life, my father was more bored still in his struggle toward death. He had had a heart attack nine years before, followed by bypass surgery and a rare procedure in which the surgeon cut out the dead parts of his heart. Now he was going through the slow deterioration for which there was, as one emergency-room doctor put it, “only so much modern medicine can do.” He had lasted two years past that pronouncement, a period when I began to muse that he might be the exception to the rule.

“What rule?” said a friend.

“The one about everyone ending up dead.”

But on the last visit to the ER, for internal bleeding following a bad reaction to pneumonia antibiotics, something seemed different. He himself began to believe—rather than just fear—that he would die. He would mutter and call, “God bless you, God bless you” and, on occasion, “Oy, mamme.” A nurse reported that he slept in twenty-minute spurts, waking up each time in a state of shaking confusion, begging for his wife and daughters. “Why is he so anxious?” she said.

We decided to spring him and found an inexperienced resident to sign off on the discharge. We thought he had a couple of weeks. But weeks became months. At home in his bed, he entered a lethargic half-sleep state, interrupted by regular coughing and moaning, frequent shouting at my mother, occasional smiles for a cautious visit from his two-year-old granddaughter. My mother’s life became just as boring as his: focused on his food, his sleep, his medicine, his agony.

“He’s all alone,” she said, lying on the couch, hand over her eyes.

Our visits barely alleviated the loneliness. From his curled position at the edge of his bed, he would raise his head when I entered the room, and with a rasp between enthusiasm and despair, he would cry out my name. I could hear in his voice the hope that something would change now that I had arrived. But nothing did. I would sit in a narrow chair, or sometimes on his bed, and recount to him the only thing that interested him: an anecdote about my sister’s child. “She’s adorable!” he would exclaim, over and over. “She’s adorable!” When I got too bored by the tale I was repeating, I would stop. Speaking, the content of our speech, made the time no less boring, and so he would lay in silence, and I would sit in silence, until I started again.

“I never imagined this would happen to him,” said my mother. He had lived a life of death escapes: from beatings by the local gentile boys in Poland, starvation and murder in concentration camps, typhus, tuberculosis, a postwar car accident that had killed three others and left him with a limp. The fact that he and his heart and lungs and kidneys remained alive, we had made ourselves believe, was the result of a life force that conquered the murderous impulses of others, the random disasters of fate, and the mortal illnesses that would have felled many far younger than he.

Yet now he was a ghost before death. I read once about a subset of residents of the displaced persons camps after the war, young men and women lying on dirty cots, unable to rise and work, unable to search, moving only to eat or to procure items of donated clothing. These were the severely traumatized refugees who could not see a future, the ones so exhausted from surviving that the ideas of marriage, giving birth, making money, playing cards, seemed like tasks for another species.

My image of my father and his companions during that time is just the opposite. Accompanied by a friend from home, he is skinny but relatively healthy, bicycling around bombed-out Germany trying to find his missing sister and brothers. But now it seemed he had joined the other group, the bored people.

It may seem that boredom makes time pass with an agonizing slowness, that boredom makes time last. But boredom is really the enemy of time. It kills the future and denigrates the past. My father lay in his bed, unwilling to get up and brush his teeth, shave, or eat more than a few bites of food. Everything we asked of him was boring, too much work, and for what? No effort would diminish the futureless loneliness.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Ghita Schwarz is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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